Brussels (AFP) – Europe’s leaders united Thursday behind Germany and France as an escalating row over claims of U.S. snooping on its traditional allies overshadowed a key summit.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose mobile phone was reportedly the latest target of covert surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), set the tone.
“Spying between friends, that’s just not done,” she said as she joined leaders of the 28-nation European Union for a summit initially called to discuss boosting employment and the digital economy.
“We need trust between partners and such trust needs to be re-established.”
French President Francois Holland made no statement on entering the two-day talks, but a diplomatic source said he and the German chancellor would discuss “how to coordinate their response” to the allegations on the margins of the two-day meeting.
Both leaders phoned President Barack Obama this week demanding clarification over claims the NSA spied on millions of French phone calls, and on the German leader personally.
“We want the truth,” said Italian Premier Enrico Letta, as leaders of Belgium, Finland, Malta and others told reporters that Washington must provide an explanation and Europe must take a joint stand to protect its citizens.
The EU executive, the European Commission, called for “a strong and united stand” as its President Jose Manuel Barroso warned against a slide towards “totalitarianism”.
“Data protection must apply no matter if it concerns the emails of citizens or the mobile phone of Angela Merkel,” said EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding. “Now is the time for action and not only for declarations at the EU summit.”
Merkel has warned that proof of snooping on her phone would be considered a “breach of trust”.
Rattled by the latest exposure based on leaks from U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, the White House has said it is not now listening in on Merkel — but also did not reject the possibility her communications may have been intercepted in the past.
Washington also denied reports of eavesdropping on France.
In the wake of Snowden’s revelations about NSA activities, several important allies have complained about U.S. covert surveillance and the White House is struggling to stem the diplomatic damage.
The NSA affair has also seen claims of U.S. snooping on foreign leaders in Mexico and Brazil, whose President Dilma Rousseff last month cancelled a state visit to Washington over the scandal.
In Germany, the head of the SPD party, Sigmar Gabriel — currently in talks with Merkel to form a coalition government — said the snooping threatened talks to seal a trans-Atlantic trade deal seen as the biggest in history.